You want a show like “Tall Horse” to be phenomenal. In re-creating the history of a 19th-century giraffe that traveled from Sudan to Paris, two African puppet troupes — South Africa’s Handspring and Mali’s Sogolon — fuse their renowned techniques into a multimedia spectacular. The show’s significance carries from the narrative, which roils with Afro-European politics, to the performers themselves, who are presenting their indigenous artistry on a U.S. tour. This is the kind of event that promises breathtaking visuals and a resounding artistic statement.
The visuals, at least, don’t disappoint. Blending puppetry with live actors and projected computer animation, the show creates a fanciful scene. For example, France’s Charles X, who receives the giraffe as a ploy for military support from the pasha of Egypt, appears as a small wooden puppet dressed in African clothes. His handler, though, moves him with a cocksure swagger that ignores his insignificance next to animations of the grasslands or the sea. Meanwhile, the massive pasha puppet fills the stage, providing political irony and the thrill of seeing something that large move so gracefully.
But the human puppets are just a prologue to the giraffe. Easily 15 feet tall and operated from the inside by two puppeteers, her every movement seems magical. Handled to be elegant and saucy, Sogo Jan (as she’s called) is dazzling to watch, her tail flicking with annoyance at some idiot king or her endless neck sweeping in lazy curves at the command of Atir (Sandile Matsheni), her human caregiver.
Unfortunately, the play does these remarkable puppets no favors. The near incoherence of the storytelling, in fact, opposes the precision and grace of the visuals. It doesn’t help that the cast struggles with enunciation, so that by the time it hits the fifth row of BAM’s Harvey Theater, much of the dialogue has been swallowed.
What can be understood is no less obscure. Playwright Khephra Burns girds the giraffe story with a convoluted frame about a modern-day man (Matsheni) digging through a museum’s artifacts for information about a slave ancestor. Inexplicably, museum scientists decide to use the artifacts (read: puppets) to perform the story of the man’s forefather.
That forefather is apparently Atir, since the young man transforms into the giraffe handler while the narrative shifts from present to past. Some of these details might be related incorrectly, but Burns flies through the setup too quickly to let it sink in.
Meanwhile, the slipshod writing taints the production. Rather than being absorbed in the show, we must question what we’re seeing, wondering if it’s really happening or just part of the museum floor show.
The confusion is apparently meant to link modern times and the 19th century, but social relevance doesn’t land when it’s so shoddily tacked on. There might be lessons to learn from King Charles’ patronizing attitude toward Africa, but the way to teach them does not include pop culture jokes such as “The King wondered, ‘Who let the dogs out?’ ” And an audience surely can glean a moral without a museum worker opining, “What we look for, we must find in the continent of the mind.”
These stabs at social import feel like “Tall Horse” apologizing for itself, as though beautifully rendered images and a simple historical fable aren’t rewards enough. Surely the puppets still could have told us something without the help of overearnest playwriting.